Universities focus on athletes’ mental health after crises

Nov 16, 2022, 12:18 AM | Updated: Nov 17, 2022, 6:08 am
Memorial flowers and notes line walkway at Scott Stadium after three football players were killed i...

Memorial flowers and notes line walkway at Scott Stadium after three football players were killed in a shooting on the grounds of the University of Virginia Tuesday Nov. 15, 2022, in Charlottesville. Va. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

(AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Police awoke Indiana State athletic director Sherard Clinksdale early on Aug. 21 with tragic news. Two of the university’s football players, and another student, had died in a car accident.

Clinksdale immediately began devising a plan to console and support the teammates and friends of the deceased teenagers.

“There is no playbook for something like this,” Clinksdale said.

But those who have experienced the unexpected death of a college athlete under their supervision say the increased emphasis on mental health care in athletic departments and universities at large — spurred in part by the pandemic and lessons learned from other tragedies — helps when responding to a crisis.

Grief struck the University of Virginia earlier this week. Three members of the football team were shot and killed on a bus returning to the Charlottesville campus from Washington. Two other students, one of them also a football player, were wounded.

The suspect in police custody, Christopher Darnell Jones Jr., 22, is a Virginia student and former walk-on member of the football team.

Classes, academic activities and the university’s Saturday home game against Coastal Carolina were canceled, and the school made counselors and therapy dogs available. Temporary memorials with flowers and stuffed animals have sprung up on campus throughout the week, including at Scott Stadium, where the Cavaliers football team plays. Classes resumed Wednesday though the university said undergraduate students won’t have to complete any graded assignments or take exams before the Thanksgiving break.

Virginia athletic director Carla Williams said Tuesday the department has three psychologists available for grieving teammates.

“In our first meeting with the student athletes, we had a lot of counselors on hand that were there and available to work with the student athletes,” Williams said. “And not only our football student athletes — with all of our student athletes.”

Clinksdale said after he was informed that Christian Eubanks, 18, and Caleb VanHooser, 19, had been killed in a single-vehicle wreck just outside of Indiana State’s Terre Haute campus, he went to the home of head coach Curt Mallory to break the sad news to him.

Mallory took on the difficult task of informing the players’ families that their sons had been killed.

The players and staff were gathered just a few hours later, with a familiar face there to provide help: Dr. Ken Chew, director of Indiana State’s Student Counseling Center.

“He’s been in front of our team before,” Mallory said. “This wasn’t a first-time introduction.”

While university leaders have pointed to increased focus on student mental health services, athletes appear less convinced. A 2019 survey of college and university presidents published by Higher Education Today found 80% indicating that mental health was being prioritized on campus more than it was three years ago. About 7 in 10 college and university leaders said they were putting more funds toward addressing mental health issues among students.

But only half of the 9,808 NCAA athletes who took a survey in late 2021 said they believe mental health is a priority to their athletics department — even after universities worked to shore up services during the pandemic as isolation to prevent the spread of coronavirus kept students from accessing resources. Among the athletes surveyed by the NCAA, 53% said they believe their coaches are taking mental health concerns seriously.

The NCAA does not have the power to mandate how schools invest and address mental health within their athletic departments, but its Sport Science Institute offers resources such as mental health best practices, workshop templates and planning tools.

In the last five years at Washington State, Cougars quarterback Tyler Hilinski killed himself on Jan. 16, 2018, and a little more than a year later, defensive back Bryce Beekman died of an accidental overdose. Dr. Sunday Henry, head team physician, was part of the response to both tragedies.

“Your primary care medical team and your mental health team immediately activate and assess the situation and how to respond,” Henry said. “What just happened? What do we need to do? For us it was get everyone together. Tell them the news. And here’s the resources available.”

Henry said she believes coaches generally have become better at encouraging athletes, who at times can conflate vulnerability for weakness, to be more willing to seek help if they are struggling with mental health.

Communication and interaction with the students is vital. Henry said athletic trainers, who spend so much time around the athletes, can play an integral role in trying to determine which students might need extra help.

At Virginia’s news conference on Tuesday, coach Tony Elliot talked about “having eyes” on the players.

“Nothing can prepare you for this situation, and we just want to be there to support the guys,” Elliott said.

Toledo athletic director Bryan Blair was a deputy athletic director at Washington State. He was hired shortly after Hilinski’s death and was part of the staff when Beekman died. He said all members of the department who came into regular contact with athletes were required to take a Mental Health First Aid course.

“All of us have a certain amount of responsibility to be able to be a resource to the student athletes,” Blair said.

Mallory, whose late father Bill was a longtime Division I college football coach, has been coaching since the early 1990s. He said even before the tragedy at Indiana State, he spent one-on-one time on Mondays with players away from the field. Over the years he’s set more and more time aside for those meetings.

“Even if I felt like they were doing OK, I still wanted to get them in front. You just don’t know,” he said.

At San Jose State, freshman running back Camdan McWright was killed last month when he was hit by a bus while riding a scooter near campus.

Athletic director Jeff Konya said head coach Brent Brennan delivered the news to McWright’s family and it was Brennan and assistant coaches closest to the player who talked with his relatives throughout the week as a memorial was planned.

“And so that was an additional burden, and rightly so that was placed on our coaches, who had the best relationship with the family through the recruitment of Camdan,” Konya said.

The team’s game against New Mexico State was postponed and, instead, the players and coaches spent time together watching football. The next week, before the Spartans’ homecoming game, McWright was honored in a ceremony with his loved ones in attendance. San Jose State beat Nevada 35-28 in a cathartic victory.

Konya, who has been a college athletics administrator for 36 years, said he has seen mental health care become more of a priority on campus and in athletic departments.

“We’re in a better position now,” Konya said. “But it’s not foolproof and events like what happened here and what unfortunately happened at Virginia, those kinds of extreme cases are going to require really particular attention.”

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AP Sports Writer Erica Hunzinger contributed to this report.

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Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at http://www.appodcasts.com

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Universities focus on athletes’ mental health after crises